Freemasonry has been full of jokes about goats and “riding the goat” for a very long time. They’re not exactly even jokes, just Masons chuckling at the false idea that the initiation ceremony involves riding a goat, or goats in some way.
To be clear, particularly to any candidates for the degrees, this is all nonsense. Goats do not factor into Masonic ritual at all. But how this came to be such a persistent idea is interesting, and it’s the topic of this post.
The DeMoulin Brothers
The story of “riding the goat” goes back to the 1840s. Setting the stage:
During this period, fraternal organizations were omnipresent; vast numbers of American men joined organizations such as the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Modern Woodmen of America, the United Order of American Mechanics, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and hundreds of other more obscure groupsRiding the Goat, William D. Moore
This was a low period for Freemasonry in particular though. In the 1820s – 1840s the United States was in the midst of the Morgan Affair anti-Masonry backlash. Odd Fellows lodges were booming, and there was far less Masonic activity at the time.
While all of these other groups were varied, they often shared many commonalities like regalia, handshakes, titles, and complex initiation ceremonies. And the existence of so many groups meant that businesses popped up to cater to them, so-called “Fraternal Supplies” companies, just as there are companies such as Macoy Publishing today that act as vendors of supplies for lodges.
One such company, DeMoulin Bros & Co. of Greenville Illinois manufactured a product called the New Kensington Goat. The company was founded in 1892 and specialized in comic equipment for pranks.
“Riding the Goat” was an example of one prank that fraternal organizations of the time did do, and DeMoulin supplied the necessary mechanical goats. (I find no record of actual living goats being involved). Between 1900 – 1930 DeMoulin Brothers even received patents for mechanical goats.
There are many small twists and turns in this story, and other examples provided in the Riding the Goat paper which give examples of other fraternal pranks. What’s important here is that the DeMoulin Brothers company was only one that was manufacturing this kind of equipment, and that many different fraternal groups had variations on it.
The DeMoulin Museum in Greenville Illinois is still open. While the company has moved on from fraternal supply and is now “one of the nation’s leading makers of marching band uniforms”, they apparently haven’t lost touch with their history, as the museum website’s logo is a cheeky picture of a winking goat. Describing the company:
They were subversive, the brothers, in the way artists are subversive. They satirized sobriety and high seriousness; they tossed pomp on its ass and made dignity pee in its pants. They were Lords of Misrule, and their marvelous devices were tools available to anyone who wanted to have fun at someone else’s expense, one of the finest forms of fun there is. Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke (I don’t know who said it first. I know it’s not in the Torah). Every oversized ego is in need of deflation. Every overly solemn occasion is in need of someone willing to fart. This stuff is more than just fancy pranks. It’s Americana.David Copperfield, in the forward to the book “The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions” by Julia Suits
While Freemasonry was one of many fraternal groups active during this time period, the earliest references to a “lodge goat” come from the 1840s in anti-Odd Fellows publications. “The anonymous Odd Fellow Exposed”, published in Exeter New Hampshire in 1845 is one such example. We can’t be sure the Odd Fellows were the first to use the goat prank, but it seems likely that they did in this time period. It’s unlikely they were the only fraternal organization that did.
Remember that DeMoulin Brothers wasn’t founded until 1892, so by the time they hit the scene, it’s likely that this was an established fraternal prank, and they were the “Johnny Come Lately” to the business; their expansion and patents provide a good written history. I’ve been told that the Masonic Library and Museum of Indiana still has a DeMoulin Brothers goat in their collection.
Because fraternal groups have always seen stiff opposition, the lack of any mention of a lodge goat prior to the 1840s in their work is one reason to believe that’s roughly its time of origin. Goats do not feature in anti-masonic writing of the 1820s and 1830s, for example, while the opponents of Freemasonry of that day weren’t shy to accuse the fraternity of anything else they could find.
Goat jokes need to be retired
It seems like a harmless chuckle and among brothers maybe it is. It’s popular enough that you can even buy “goat joke merch” online, like this T-shirt (which I will not link).
But when Freemasons talk to others who aren’t initiated, the goat jokes really only serve two purposes, both of them quite negative:
- To make candidates uncomfortable by playing up the secret aspect of the ritual or creating apprehension of something that isn’t coming (a kind of light hazing)
- To fuel conspiracy theorists and some in the Christian community who actively seek any connection between the goat as a symbol of Satan and Freemasonry
Even in 2020, you can find conspiracy theory YouTube channels that use Freemasonry’s non-association with the goat to paint it as some kind of Satanist organization. And while the Craft can’t prevent others from publishing falsehoods, it can avoid pouring gasoline on them.
It’s hard to ask brothers to kill off a joke that probably feels like a tradition unto itself at this point. Brothers may refuse to participate in the chuckling though, if they agree that making candidates uncomfortable and adding fuel to conspiracies is not a good thing for Freemasons to do.
- Riding the Goat: Secrecy, Masculinity, and Fraternal High Jinks in the United States 1845 – 1930 by William D. Moore
- Review of the Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, by Fred Milliken
- The Demoulin Museum, Greenville, Illinois
- The Goat Question (Freemasonry for Dummies), by Chris Hodapp
- Goat Riding Postcards, Phoenix Masonry
- The Lodge Goat and Goat Rides, Phoenix Masonry
- Informal twitter discussion on same topic